Researchers say 'spidey senses' could help self-driving vehicles avoid hazards

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Taylor Callery

Researchers want to give cars, planes and drones “spidey senses.” That is, they want to give autonomous machines sensors that mimic nature. In a paper published in ACS Nano, a team of researchers — from Purdue University, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and ETH Zürich — propose integrating spider-inspired sensors into the exterior of autonomous machines. Doing so, they say, would allow vehicles to selectively process data faster than currently possible.

As the researchers explain, one reason nature is able to process data so quickly is that things like spiders, bats and birds don’t have to process all data — just the information necessary to survival. For example, when prey lands on a spider’s web, hairs on the spider’s legs vibrate at a specific frequency and stimulate mechanosensors. But when dust lands on the web, the mechanosensors don’t respond to the frequency of that vibration. So, the researchers are working to develop sensors that would respond in a similar way, selectively processing information, which would cut down on their data load.

The sensors could go one step further. According to Purdue, the sensors on spiders’ legs are able to switch between sensing and responding to stimuli, or between acting as mechanosensors and mechanoreceptors. “There’s no distinction between hardware and software in nature; it’s all interconnected,” said Andres Arrieta, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue. “A sensor is meant to interpret data, as well as collect and filter it.” The researchers are designing their spider-inspired sensors to do the same.

The sensors they’re developing change shape when activated by an external force that meets a predetermined threshold. Changing shape makes conductive particles move closer together so that electricity can flow through the sensor and carry a signal. That signal then informs how the autonomous system should respond. In doing so, the sensors not only sense and filter at a fast rate, they also compute without a power supply. If the team is successful in developing and deploying such sensors, they could potentially help autonomous drones navigate dangerous environments and self-driving cars avoid hazards in the road.

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This spider's eyes still glow, even though it died 110 million years ago

Glowing eyes.
Glowing eyes.

Fossil hunters in Korea discovered long-dead spiders preserved in rock. And to the delight of scientists, the arachnids’ eyes are still reflective — some 110 million years after the creatures died. 

It’s rare for insects and arachnids — which are far more brittle than shelled sea creatures — to become fossilized in rocks. But for reasons still unknown, a couple of these spiders did fossilize, and the unique shape of their eye structures continue to reflect light — even in their petrified form. 

The reflective eye structure is called a tapetum, and it’s often used by creatures who hunt in the dark. 

“So, night-hunting predators tend to use this different kind of eye,” Paul Selden, director of the Paleontological Institute at Kansas University’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, said in a statement. “This was the first time a tapetum had been in found a fossil. This tapetum was canoe-shaped — it looks a bit like a Canadian canoe.”

A 100-year-old spider with reflective eyes.

A 100-year-old spider with reflective eyes.

Image: PAUL A. SELLEN/The University of Kansas

Today’s wolf spiders employ the same eye structures to hunt, Selden added.

A mystery still remains, however: How did the spiders become fossilized? Their petrified bodies were found in a layer of rock filled with fish and other sea critters — but spiders don’t dwell in water.

“It has to be a very special situation where they were washed into a body of water,” Selden said. “Normally, they’d float. But here, they sunk, and that kept them away from decaying bacteria — it may have been a low-oxygen condition.”

Another view of the fossilized spider.

Another view of the fossilized spider.


Selden and his Korean colleagues — who actually discovered the ancient spiders — now get to name the curious fossils. They were only found because Korean land is often excavated, so scientists and the fossil-curious dig in to see what ancient novelties are hidden in Earth’s crust. 

“So, they carve away the hillsides to make a flat area, and there are temporary excavations while they’re cutting away and building a factory or whatever — that’s where they found these fossils,” said Selden. 

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Imagine Walking Into This Wall of Spiders and Never Sleep Again

Screenshot: YouTube

You know what’s more terrifying than spiders creeping into your home in the middle of the night? Spiders in the freaking skies, man.

The Guardian on Friday reported recent accounts of such an occurrence in Brazil, where people have reportedly claimed it’s “raining spiders.” A video recently shared to Facebook of the phenomenon in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais appears to show hundreds of spiders suspended in the air—like something straight out your worst arachnid nightmares.

The video was reportedly filmed by 14-year-old João Pedro Martinelli Fonseca, according to local news outlet Terra do Mandu. Dona Jercina Martinelli, the teen’s grandmother, told the site that there were “a lot more webs and thousands of spiders than it appears in the video,” per an English translation.


Terrifying as it may be, this is evidently something that is common of the species parawixia bistriata and occurs during hotter, humid times of the year, according to the Guardian, citing Federal University of Minas Gerais professor and arachnology specialist Adalberto Santos. These arachnids are reportedly social creatures who band together to make one massive web that they use to catch food. As for reports of “flying” spiders, that may be the result of behavior referred to as ballooning, Terra do Mandu reported.

Some spiders use ballooning to catch gusts of wind and surf the skies; watching teeny, tiny crab spiders do this is actually pretty freaking awesome (even if their presence in the skies is, you know, not). And reader, while I am very sorry to have to tell you, these are hardly the only spiders that “fly.” In fact, these creatures are quite enterprising; spiders can even sail for god’s sake.


Speaking with Gizmodo about flying crab spiders last year, Cheryl Hayashi, a spider biologist at the American Museum of Natural History, said that witnessing this phenomenon “gives you a deeper appreciation for how spiders have evolved to do this feat—they’re literally sailing through the air.”

Incredible evolutionary achievement notwithstanding, any of us would be forgiven for being creeped the hell out by airborne spiders.

[Terra do Mandu via The Guardian]


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Police called after man heard shouting death threats… to a spider

A man's encounter with a spider resulted in a full-blown police turnout.
A man’s encounter with a spider resulted in a full-blown police turnout.
Image: Getty Images/EyeEm

Sure, spiders are scary enough to send some people into a tizzy. 

For one Australian man with a serious fear of the arachnid, his rather intense vocal reaction resulted in multiple police units attending the scene.

On Wednesday morning in Perth, Western Australia, a bystander heard a man inside a property repeatedly shouting the words “why don’t you die,” with the sounds of a toddler screaming in the background,. They naturally called police. 

It turns out the man was only trying to kill a spider.

Western Australian Police posted a screenshot of the interaction on Twitter, however, the tweet was later deleted as officers aren’t meant to screenshot police systems.

“No injuries sighted (except to spider),” the police report read.

A WA Police spokesperson told Mashable via email that it was “very pleased the incident turned out to be something completely different to what was expected.”

“The member of the community who phoned this in did exactly the right thing – they heard something that concerned them, and that made them think someone was in danger, and they immediately contacted Police,” the spokesperson added.

“Our officers attend the scene urgently and that is when they discovered the incident was related to a spider. This isn’t something we see on a regular basis but it is definitely something the officers involved will remember.”

A lesson on not what to scream next time you encounter a spider, at the very least.

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Spider Mothers Produce Milk for Their Young, Incredible New Study Shows

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Jumping spider mothers provide milk to their spiderlings far into development, according to a new study that might turn your understanding of invertebrate parenting on its head.

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